By Wes Prater
Realty specialist and team lead
Fort Worth District

FORT WORTH, Texas - Working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Defense Logistics Agency Program has not only enriched my work skills as a new realty specialist, but as a history buff, it's really been an interesting assignment.

I spent 20 years in the Marines, retiring as a major, and my last active duty assignment was as the provost marshal at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. My background in law enforcement, in some ways, made me well-suited for the work we've been doing on the DLA Project in the Real Estate section. While you focus on keeping the peace while doing law enforcement work, a lot of it is really just being a professional witness and that's essentially what we're doing in the DLA program. We even use that term with some of the folks we're working with on the installations, explaining to them that our team is there as a professional witness to see what's in use by DLA on an installation and to ensure that it is correctly recorded and documented.

A lot of realty specialists from the Fort Worth District serve as team leads for the DLA inventory and assessment missions. The largest part of our job is to coordinate with the property officer at the site we're going to, and work with them to determine what assets should be considered real property that are formally allocated to DLA. The vast majority of the assets we work with are military fuels related, and we're usually augmented by a military fuels expert out of our Omaha District and other realty specialists from a district within the same area of responsibility as the military base. If they're not familiar with the DLA Program, we help train them on site and it falls to the real estate team lead to do the overall quality assurance on the site visit findings.

The job involves a little bit of detective work. We begin with an inventory sheet that may or may not be accurate, then coordinate with the base to make sure we're seeing everything that's on site. The end goal is to prepare an accurate and complete inventory of everything on an installation that's allocated to DLA. What we've been finding on our site visits is that the asset databases, compiled by both the installation and the DLA, have grown apart over time, for a variety of reasons, including new construction, demolitions, and even natural disasters.

DLA is considered a tenant on a military installation, so what we're really doing is comparing the tenant's records to those of the various landlords. We are helping DLA to become audit ready since it's important for them to know exactly what assets they have at each military base, and to have reached an agreement with the host command that is recorded on a permit and audit-ready property files.

Site visit logistics can be a challenge no matter how much planning we do. We had a trip to Utah last year where due to weather and flight schedules, we ended up visiting five installations in three days. That made for a hectic schedule especially considering the geographic distance between the bases. Weather can make things difficult as well. We had a snowstorm in West Virginia last year that was the weirdest I'd ever seen. It wasn't really snow; it was tiny hail that looked like Dip n Dots ice cream. We were trying to take latitude-longitude measurements, photographs and detailed notes while it was freezing cold and this tiny ice was sticking to everything - including the papers we were trying to write on.

The layout of the installation and its normal operating procedures can also present obstacles. In Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the base is split by the bay and there is a ferry connecting the two sides. We took the ferry across at the end of the day and had only a short window of time to visit our assets. On the way back, our van got caught behind a long line of cars for the last ferry of the day. Since it didn't look like we'd make it, we bailed out and sprinted to reach the ferry on foot since the van was a base asset that was staying on the far side.

One of the most interesting things I've seen so far was the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That facility was built during World War II and it's entirely underground. There is a line of 20 tanks connected by miles-long tunnels. What's amazing is the size of the tanks, these things are huge: nearly 300 feet top to bottom and 200 feet wide. They're shaped like a Nyquil capsule on its end, and each holds around 12 million gallons. They're 70 years old now and still in use. There was also an underground work area where they fabricated these huge tanks, piece by piece, out of sight of any enemy fly-overs during the war.

During the site visit, David Nuss, one of our fuels guys from Omaha, and I were walking back inside this tunnel. It was somewhat dark and dusty and being a tunnel, any sound bounces all over the place. Suddenly we start hearing a rumbling noise that was getting louder and louder. Then we saw a light coming towards us, all of which can be somewhat alarming when you're in a small underground tunnel.

I said, "Dave, I think that's a train."

Turns out, it was an electric personnel and equipment train making a run through the tunnel, and thankfully, there was just enough room for us to step out of the way as it went by.

Since we were underground, none of our electronic signals could penetrate. Our long-lat instruments didn't work, and we were out of touch with the rest of the team for the time we were down there. When I came out, I had about 15 text messages. When the site coordinator asked where we were I told her: "We were underground trying to see what it's like to be a Hobbit!"

On our site visit to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, nobody had cars. There are very few vehicles on the island so everyone rides bicycles. The locals customize their 50s-style bicycles with three-foot handlebar extensions so you can lean on the handlebars when you ride them. We rode one to get around just like everybody else.

Flying to an atoll can be an experience in itself. Normally when an aircraft makes its approach you can see land out one window or the other, or usually both. On the way to and from Kwajalein, we had to make a stop at Majuro Atoll, which is the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. We're in a 707-size United Airlines aircraft, and the landing strip on that island is so narrow that all you can see is water out both windows of the aircraft as you're coming in for landing. There's really not much to those atolls, it's just a spot of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

On that trip our plane picked up a large party of Marshallese at Majuro on their way to Kwajalein. They were all dressed in black, so we thought that was an island custom or something but then it turned out they were all going to the funeral for the king's son at Kwajalein that day. When we arrived the plane was greeted by a traditional funeral entourage complete with drums and dancers.

One of the things that was most striking to me about Kwajalein was the color of the water, it was the deepest aqua blue I've ever seen. I really wanted to squeeze in some snorkeling time while I was there, but I didn't get a chance since we were only on the island for two days and had a lot of work to do - not to mention that it took time to navigate the island riding around on a bicycle!

A lot people might think with this work we're doing and all of the travel is a real coup, and we get to live large in remote locations. The reality is that time to see the sites is rare since we have so much work to do on what is always a tight schedule. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to work on this program and to contribute, in even a small way, to support our troops, and the service they provide to our nation.

Wes Prater has accepted a real estate post with the Galveston District, which started in May.